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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a powerful and carefully reasoned dissent in the University of Michigan affirmative action case that dissected the indefensible and illogical opinion of the court's majority.

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Justice Thomas’ Dissent on Quotas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a powerful and carefully reasoned dissent in the University of Michigan affirmative action case that dissected the indefensible and illogical opinion of the court’s majority.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas joined Justice Antonin Scalia in dissenting from the majority opinion in Barbara Grutter, Petitioner v. Lee Bollinger Et Al. The court upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy on June 23. The following excerpts are from Justice Thomas’s dissent in last month’s Supreme Court decision.

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Frederick Douglass, speaking to a group of abolitionists almost 140 years ago, delivered a message lost on today’s majority:

“[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.” What the Black Man Wants: An Address Delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, on 26 January 1865, reprinted in 4 The Frederick Douglass Papers 59, 68 (J. Blassingame & J. McKivigan eds. 1991) (emphasis in original).

Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators. Because I wish to see all students succeed whatever their color, I share, in some respect, the sympathies of those who sponsor the type of discrimination advanced by the University of Michigan Law School (Law School).

The Constitution does not, however, tolerate institutional devotion to the status quo in admissions policies when such devotion ripens into racial discrimination. Nor does the Constitution countenance the unprecedented deference the Court gives to the Law School, an approach inconsistent with the very concept of “strict scrutiny.”

No one would argue that a university could set up a lower general admission standard and then impose heightened requirements only on black applicants. Similarly, a university may not maintain a high admission standard and grant exemptions to favored races. The Law School, of its own choosing, and for its own purposes, maintains an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially disproportionate results. Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted wounds of this elitist admissions policy.

The majority upholds the Law School’s racial discrimination not by interpreting the people’s Constitution, but by responding to a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti. Nevertheless, I concur in part in the Court’s opinion.

First, I agree with the Court insofar as its decision, which approves of only one racial classification, confirms that further use of race in admissions remains unlawful.

Second, I agree with the Court’s holding that racial discrimination in higher education admissions will be illegal in 25 years. . . . I respectfully dissent from the remainder of the Court’s opinion and the judgment, however, because I believe that the Law School’s current use of race violates the Equal Protection Clause and that the Constitution means the same thing today as it will in 300 months.

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Unlike the majority, I seek to define with precision the interest being asserted by the Law School before determining whether that interest is so compelling as to justify racial discrimination. The Law School maintains that it wishes to obtain “educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,” Brief for Respondents Bollinger et al. 14.

This statement must be evaluated carefully, because it implies that both “diversity” and “educational benefits” are components of the Law School’s compelling state interest. Additionally, the Law School’s refusal to entertain certain changes in its admissions process and status indicates that the compelling state interest it seeks to validate is actually broader than might appear at first glance.

Undoubtedly there are other ways to “better” the education of law students aside from ensuring that the student body contains a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students. Attaining “diversity,” whatever it means,3 is the mechanism by which the Law School obtains educational benefits, not an end of itself.

The Law School, however, apparently believes that only a racially mixed student body can lead to the educational benefits it seeks. How, then, is the Law School’s interest in these allegedly unique educational “benefits” not simply the forbidden interest in “racial balancing,” ante, at 17, that the majority expressly rejects?

The proffered interest that the majority vindicates today, then, is not simply “diversity.” Instead the Court upholds the use of racial discrimination as a tool to advance the Law School’s interest in offering a marginally superior education while maintaining an elite institution.

Unless each constituent part of this state interest is of pressing public necessity, the Law School’s use of race is unconstitutional. I find each of them to fall far short of this standard.

The silence in this case is deafening to those of us who view higher education’s purpose as imparting knowledge and skills to students, rather than a communal, rubber-stamp, credentialing process.

The Law School is not looking for those students who, despite a lower LSAT score or undergraduate grade point average, will succeed in the study of law. The Law School seeks only a facade-it is sufficient that the class looks right, even if it does not perform right.

The Law School tantalizes unprepared students with the promise of a University of Michigan degree and all of the opportunities that it offers. These overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition. And this mismatch crisis is not restricted to elite institutions. . . . Indeed, to cover the tracks of the aestheticists, this cruel farce of racial discrimination must continue-in selection for the Michigan Law Review, see University of Michigan Law School Student Handbook 2002-2003, pp. 39-40 (noting the presence of a “diversity plan” for admission to the review), and in hiring at law firms and for judicial clerkships-until the “beneficiaries” are no longer tolerated.

While these students may graduate with law degrees, there is no evidence that they have received a qualitatively better legal education (or become better lawyers) than if they had gone to a less “elite” law school for which they were better prepared. And the aestheticists will never address the real problems facing “underrepresented minorities,” instead continuing their social experiments on other people’s children.

Beyond the harm the Law School’s racial discrimination visits upon its test subjects, no social science has disproved the notion that this discrimination “engender[s] attitudes of superiority or, alternatively, provoke[s] resentment among those who believe that they have been wronged by the government’s use of race. . . .These programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are ‘entitled’ to preferences.”

It is uncontested that each year, the Law School admits a handful of blacks who would be admitted in the absence of racial discrimination. . . . Who can differentiate between those who belong and those who do not? The majority of blacks are admitted to the Law School because of discrimination, and because of this policy all are tarred as undeserving.

This problem of stigma does not depend on determinacy as to whether those stigmatized are actually the “beneficiaries” of racial discrimination. When blacks take positions in the highest places of government, industry, or academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color played a part in their advancement.

The question itself is the stigma-because either racial discrimination did play a role, in which case the person may be deemed “otherwise unqualified,” or it did not, in which case asking the question itself unfairly marks those blacks who would succeed without discrimination. Is this what the Court means by “visibly open?”

Finally, the Court’s disturbing reference to the importance of the country’s law schools as training grounds meant to cultivate “a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry,” ibid., through the use of racial discrimination deserves discussion. . . .

For those who believe that every racial disproportionality in our society is caused by some kind of racial discrimination, there can be no distinction between remedying societal discrimination and erasing racial disproportionalities in the country’s leadership caste. And if the lack of proportional racial representation among our leaders is not caused by societal discrimination, then “fixing” it is even less of a pressing public necessity.

The Court’s civics lesson presents yet another example of judicial selection of a theory of political representation based on skin color-an endeavor I have previously rejected. See Holder v. Hall, 512 U. S. 874, 899 (1994) (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment). The majority appears to believe that broader utopian goals justify the Law School’s use of race, but “[t]he Equal Protection Clause commands the elimination of racial barriers, not their creation in order to satisfy our theory as to how society ought to be organized.”

As the foregoing makes clear, I believe the Court’s opinion to be, in most respects, erroneous. I do, however, find [another point] on which I agree.

The Court also holds that racial discrimination in admissions should be given another 25 years before it is deemed no longer narrowly tailored to the Law School’s fabricated compelling state interest.

While I agree that in 25 years the practices of the Law School will be illegal, they are, for the reasons I have given, illegal now. The majority does not and cannot rest its time limitation on any evidence that the gap in credentials between black and white students is shrinking or will be gone in that timeframe.

In recent years there has been virtually no change, for example, in the proportion of law school applicants with LSAT scores of 165 and higher who are black. In 1993 blacks constituted 1.1% of law school applicants in that score range, though they represented 11.1% of all applicants. (Law School Admission Council, National Statistical Report, 1994, hereinafter LSAC Statistical Report.)

In 2000, the comparable numbers were 1.0% and 11.3%. LSAC Statistical Report (2001). No one can seriously contend, and the Court does not, that the racial gap in academic credentials will disappear in 25 years. Nor is the Court’s holding that racial discrimination will be unconstitutional in 25 years made contingent on the gap closing in that time.

Indeed, the very existence of racial discrimination of the type practiced by the Law School may impede the narrowing of the LSAT testing gap. An applicant’s LSAT score can improve dramatically with preparation, but such preparation is a cost, and there must be sufficient benefits attached to an improved score to justify additional study.

Whites scoring between 163 and 167 on the LSAT are routinely rejected by the Law School, and thus whites aspiring to admission at the Law School have every incentive to improve their score to levels above that range. . . . Blacks, on the other hand, are nearly guaranteed admission if they score above 155.

As admission prospects approach certainty, there is no incentive for the black applicant to continue to prepare for the LSAT once he is reasonably assured of achieving the requisite score. It is far from certain that the LSAT test-taker’s behavior is responsive to the Law School’s admissions policies. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that this racial discrimination will help fulfill the bigot’s prophecy about black underperformance-just as it confirms the conspiracy theorist’s belief that “institutional racism” is at fault for every racial disparity in our society.

I therefore can understand the imposition of a 25-year time limit only as a holding that the deference the Court pays to the Law School’s educational judgments and refusal to change its admissions policies will itself expire. At that point these policies will clearly have failed to ” ‘eliminat[e] the [perceived] need for any racial or ethnic'” discrimination because the academic credentials gap will still be there.

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For the immediate future, however, the majority has placed its imprimatur on a practice that can only weaken the principle of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Equal Protection Clause. “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

It has been nearly 140 years since Frederick Douglass asked the intellectual ancestors of the Law School to “[d]o nothing with us!” and the Nation adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. Now we must wait another 25 years to see this principle of equality vindicated. I therefore respectfully dissent from the remainder of the Court’s opinion and the judgment.

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